Meals on Wheels can deliver a hot meal. A doctor can prescribe pills. A personal support worker can help with dressing, or a bath. They’re all important, but what many old people need most is a whole lot harder to come by.

A friend.

Researchers say the impact on health of being lonely is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lonely elders are more likely to die of a heart attack and are at a higher risk for dementia, depression and anxiety.

And it all happens far from public view, behind closed doors. In Quebec, an organization called "Les Petits Frères: La grande famille des personnes âgées seules" is trying to break through that isolation.  More than 1,000 Quebec seniors are matched with younger volunteers, with the idea of creating a real and ongoing friendship.

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Everything Les Petits Frères does is rooted in the idea that human connection is essential to life. Their motto is “Les fleurs avant le pain," which translates as Flowers Before Bread.

Les Petits Frères was founded in France by Armand Marquiset, a wealthy, debonair Catholic intellectual. In 1939, while praying at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Marquiset decided to dedicate the rest of his days to helping out “les petits frères,” little brothers who were less fortunate than he was.

At the end the Second World War Marquiset signed up volunteers. They began feeding impoverished elderly people who had lost all their close family members in the war.

Marquiset believed that loneliness was as great a problem as hunger. He began inviting isolated seniors to vacation at his elegant family estate. He renamed it Le Château de Bonheur - The Chateau of Happiness - where he threw lavish parties, making sure there were lots of flowers and laughter.

A traffic jam of walkers

Today, Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly as it is known in English - flourishes in eight countries, including the United States. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the growing demand for what it has to offer.

Les Petits Freres

Nathalie Brunet greets Henri Gauthier during one of his noon visits to Les Petits Freres in Montreal. (David Gutnick/CBC)

But while it has been in Canada now for 50 years, it hasn't spread beyond Quebec.

At noon on a weekday afternoon, there is a traffic jam of walkers and wheelchairs in the front hallway of the downtown Montreal headquarters of Les Petits FrèresThe air smells of perfume, roast beef and home-made apple pie.

Every few minutes the front door swings open. Another guest is gently led in, welcomed with smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres, and then led to the dining room where there are bouquets of fresh cut roses and lilies on every table.

Benny Valente is a volunteer driver. “I have nothing to do, they have nothing to do, so we get together and we have something to do.”

For others, Les Petits Frères is about much more than that. In between forkfuls of mashed potatoes, 78-year-old Henri Gauthier tells a table-mate about life in his two room apartment in a rent-subsidized residence. “I feel lonely, you know, and I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I hate that, la vie c’est la vie, life is life. Sometimes I say, ‘I do not care,’ I hate myself, you know.”

Susan Valente is a volunteer, and many conversations with the seniors she meets have convinced her how important these lunch dates can be. “Without Les Petits Frères a lot of people would commit suicide,” she says.

Her husband Benny agrees. “Somebody should  start off the organization on the English side, because the way it is now it is only the French side doing this.”

There are few English speakers – either seniors or volunteers - involved with Les Petits Frères. The organization is very much old-school French-Canadian.

Les Petits Freres

The headquarters of Les Petits Frères in Quebec is in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood in Montreal. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Les Petits Frères has no religious or government affiliation. The organization is financed by private donations and is fiercely independent.

To get help you must be 75 years old and have no family members living nearby. Seniors are referred by social workers, nurses or neighbours. It doesn’t matter whether they live alone or in a residence, whether they are sick or healthy, rich or poor - they just have to say they are lonely.

Peter McGrail is one of the people who draws support from the organization. He's pretty good at steering his electric wheelchair through the narrow halls of his senior’s apartment tower in Montreal’s east end, which Les Petits Frères helped him find when others didn’t work out.

McGrail is a bachelor: he worked for decades at Eaton’s, decorating store windows from Toronto to Halifax. After he retired he enjoyed attending concerts, tinkering with antique clocks and gardening at his cabin. But then McGrail’s health and his finances went south.

By the time he was 80, life was grim. His only friends were the birds and chipmunks he fed in the park.

“I thought of  suicide a few times,” he says, "When you are down and out at Christmas time, you look out the window and see a cement wall, and it is snowing out and you don’t know what to think, what to do, so you just lie down.”

Nathalie Brunet is the the program coordinator at Les Petits Frères. She remembers the phone call from a social worker asking if the organization could see one of her clients - an Anglophone - who was in trouble.  

Les Petits Freres

Peter McGrail shows off his studio apartment, which he found with help from Les Petits Frères in Montreal. (David Gutnick/CBC)

“Mr. McGrail has diabetes,” she says, and he was not eating the foods he needed. “His eyes were getting weaker, so of course he could not see if something was dirty, if something was misplaced.”

McGrail was in a difficult situation and like many seniors was “depressed and starting to think suicidal thoughts.”

Les Petits Frères helped McGrail get medical help and found a home suited to his needs and his budget. He also became a regular guest at the organization’s fancy four course meals. But most importantly, Les Petits Frères twinned McGrail with a volunteer.

“They got me a gentleman,” he says “to come and see me once a week, just to talk. It  takes the weight off you, worrying. If it wasn’t for Les Petits Frères, I don’t know where I would be."

To the last breath and beyond

Nathalie Brunet looks over today’s party. Despite the delicious food, laughter and flowers, there’s a hint of sadness in her - this week there’s an empty chair at one of the tables.

Madame Lucille Mclaughlin had just died. She was 80.

Les Petits Frères will make sure what happens next will be done just right.

“Our commitment is to take care of them to the end. That also means after,” says Nathalie.

Les Petits Frères  takes charge of funeral services when no-one else steps up. There are six areas reserved for “Old Friends” in the  Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mont Royal. At some funerals there are but a handful of mourners.

“If we were not there,” says Nathalie Brunet, “there would not be anybody else.”

[Listen to David Gutnick's full radio documentary about Les Petits Frères. Click the link at the top of this page or visit The Sunday Edition's website.]